When the Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani and his Indian counterpart Dr. Manmohan Singh shook hands at the Mohali Cricket Stadium in Chandigarh, India, on March 30, during the semi-final of the world cup between the two South Asian giants, it was not merely a photo session, but it seemed like they were setting off another round of cricket diplomacy that marked a cautious return of good will. This is perhaps the third time the two nations are using the game to bridge their differences.
The meeting as reported in wide section of media also gave both the leaders a chance to speak openly on various issues without the pressure of public expectations. The entire region was watching the game with great enthusiasm and they too had little expectations of any kind of major breakthrough, but the fact remains that the two premiers' meeting face to face marked a step forward in a relationship that has been effectively dampened since the Mumbai attacks in 2008.
In India-Pakistan relations, what diplomats have long failed to achieve, cricketers may finally deliver: the much-awaited peace between the two South Asian rivals, even if an unstable one in the beginning. Who is a winner or a loser may certainly have been an issue for emotive populations of the two countries watching their respective cricket team play the world cup semi-final at Mohali in India, in which Pakistan was defeated. However, the real significance of by far the most important match of ICC World Cup 2011, held on March 30, lies in its potential of becoming the occasion to start a meaningful dialogue for peace between India and Pakistan.
It had happened two times before when cricket was used by leaders to melt the ice in the relations between the two countries. Back in early 1987, as India's military exercises brought the two countries close to war, former Pakistani President General Zia ul Haq flew to Delhi to watch an Indo-Pak cricket match, labelling his visit as 'cricket for peace' initiative, which did help ease tension on the border. Likewise, six years ago, the then President Pervez Musharraf visited Jaipur to watch an Indo-Pak cricket match in an attempt to gear up the peace process between the two countries that began in January 2004 but has stalled several times since then.
This time around, the initiative to use a sport that is so much loved by people of the two countries as a means for normalizing bilateral relations came from Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. As soon as it became clear that India and Pakistan were to face each other in the world cup semi-final, he invited both Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari and Prime Minister Yusuf Raza Gilani to visit India to watch the match.
On March 30 also Prime Minister Gilani and Dr Manmohan Singh showed optimism after the meeting. It seems to be another start on the road to peace. Both sides laid the groundwork for a ministerial meeting in July 2011 where issues like Kashmir, terrorism and trade would be discussed at the “composite dialogue.”
Prime Minister Gilani accepted the invitation, went to India, and sat alongside his Indian counterpart, enjoying the thrilling contest. After the match, he was seen gracefully congratulating Dr. Singh, just as Pakistani captain Shahid Afridi did to his Indian counterpart. Later the two prime ministers then got together at a dinner to informally discuss the prospects of normal and peaceful ties between the two nations.
After 2008 incident, efforts to bring India at the negotiation table bore fruit when Prime Minister Syed Yusuf Raza Gilani and Manmohan Singh held formal talks on the sidelines of the SAARC summit at the Thimphu in April 2010. The foundation of these talks had been laid by the two prime ministers during their meeting at the Egyptian resort Sharm el-Sheikh. In consequence of that India's foreign Secretary Nirupma Rao came over to Pakistan and held talks with her counterpart Salman Bashir in Islamabad. In the meeting agenda for the foreign ministers meeting of the two countries was finalised. India's foreign minister S M Krishna came to Islamabad in mid July last year and had a meeting with Shah Mahmood Qureshi on the agreed agenda. At least twice during the three years of the sitting government in Pakistan, once at Sharm el-Sheikh in July 2009 and then at Thimphu in March last year, the two prime ministers agreed to break the ice. However, neither of the two political attempts could succeed in kick-starting the peace process. As the two previous instances of what is generally termed as 'cricket diplomacy' did not generate the expected political momentum for peace because the political environment was not conducive for such outcome. However, the current situation seems to be different.
Talks between the two countries in the last decade had been instrumental in resumption of bilateral trade relations besides restoration of bus service between Srinagar and Muzaffarabad and opening of trade between the two cities of the disputed territory. Line of Control has been opened to facilitate bilateral visits of families from both sides. These confidence-building measures have gone a long way in easing tension and creation of a favourable atmosphere for moving forward towards the ultimate solution of the core issue of Kashmir. Since November 2008 a number of milestones have been covered as far as resumption of dialogue between the two neighbouring countries is concerned. There have been several summit meetings at various occasions stressing the need for resuming the stalled peace process. The meeting between President Asif Ali Zardari and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh at Yekaterinburg, Russia on June 16, 2009 and between Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and Yousuf Raza Gilani at Sharm el-Sheikh on July 16, 2009, the foreign secretaries meeting in the Indian capital on February 25, 2010, followed by the two prime ministers' successful meeting at Thimphu on April 30, 2010 and foreign secretaries preparatory meeting in Islamabad on June 24, 2010, and at the ensuing home ministers meeting on June 26, both in Islamabad bear testimony to the importance of talks for breaking the deadlock and moving forward towards reconciliation and rapprochement.
Despite the highs and lows of the cricket match that followed on the field, the people showed that they can live together despite differing opinions and varied choices. Now it is the bureaucrats' turn to show the Mohali spirit and ride the good-will wave to peace between these two South Asian giants. As also stated at the outset, this cricket world cup semi-final -- in which one's victory was not taken as the other's loss -- has generated considerable public goodwill in both countries. This purely sporting event has brought the two prime ministers together and has, thus, already played a great supporting role in giving a symbolic go ahead to the peace process. One high level meeting of the two countries' interior/home secretaries produced a credible outcome even before Indian and Pakistani cricketers faced each other at Mohali.
Let's make this peace process genuinely irreversible, as it was originally agreed at the start of 2004. Once the foreign secretaries of India and Pakistan hold the first round of their scheduled parleys in July, we can hope that serious work on all the eight items on the agenda of the Composite Dialogue will resume in its full entirety, including the issue of tackling the most complex problem of Kashmir in a way that satisfies the aspirations of both countries as well as, and more importantly, the Kashmiri people. Resolving lingering dispute will surely be a time consuming exercise. However, this does not mean that short-term, complementary steps--such as relaxing visas, promoting civil society interaction, expanding trade and commercial contacts, and adopting more confidence-building measures--should not be taken now.
Kashmir has always figured prominently in the dialogue process between the two countries in the past and it will continue to be so in the future till a permanent solution is found. It is the most contentious issue that has bedeviled relation between the two neighbouring countries. It caused three wars and a host of other problems. Therefore solution of Kashmir issue is pertinent beside the importance for resolving other issues besetting the two countries. The Kashmiris have been continuing a relentless peaceful struggle for securing their right of self-determination for the past several decades. Until and unless they are not given their right there can be no permanent solution. Moreover associating Kashmiris as stakeholders cannot be ignored because any solution bypassing the people of Kashmir cannot be everlasting. As the record shows there has been fervent desire to sustain the dialogue process to untie the knot of stalemates and aberrations. One should hope that the renewed process would help make up the lost time and take up the outstanding issues including the central issue of Kashmir that has spoiled relations between the two neighbours for so long. Meanwhile, Pakistan has reiterated that no dialogue or meeting could improve relations unless the status of the disputed territory of occupied Kashmir comes under discussion.
(The author is a sub-editor at the Kashmir Media Service)